The Radical Center
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The Radical Center

The Reformation and Classical Liberalism

Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation was no friend of capitalism. He said: “The pursuit of material gain beyond personal needs must thus appear as a symptom of lack of grace, and since it can apparently only be attained at the expense of others, directly reprehensible.” J.A. Hobson notes: “Luther’s intention and personal influence were not directed to release the economic or business conduct of men from the rule of spiritual life exercised by the Christian community. His earlier attitude during his reforming activities was a disparagement of material gain, an indifference towards the economic life.”

Hobson noted: “The early Lutheran Church, thus inspired, cannot be regarded as friendly to capitalism.” In fact: “Luther’s own repudiation of usury, or indeed interest of any kind, involves a definitely reactionary attitude towards the rising commercial and financial capitalism of his time.” On one occasion the great Reformationist said: “To exchange anything with any one and gain by the exchange is not to do charity, but to steal.” Conservative Christian author Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn says Luther, “was a typical medievalist.” And instead of, “advocating anything like classic liberalism, Luther taught the omnipotence of the state and opposed all forms of rationalism, Christian or otherwise”. The Jesuit Francisco Suarez was the leading publicist of the Counter-Revolution and one of his arguments, according to J.G. Merquior (), was that Luther had “dismissed natural law.”

Suarez found Luther’s “dark view of human sinfulness” incompatible with the idea a just society could be found on earth. Suarez also found a natural rights argument useful for Catholics living in areas dominated by Protestantism and argued for a “full return to the natural law perspective.” Suarez, however, being a good Catholic did not see these rights so much as individualistic but holistic and limited by the social-moral framework of society. According to Merquior it was the famed jurist Hugo Grotius who first took these natural rights views “to build an individualist account of society.”

Luther was quite explicit in his views on civil government. He said:

Barbara Ward (, Norton, 1954) says: “Luther’s social teaching thus set a part of the German nation on the road to passive citizenship and state absolutism.” She believes this “tradition of passive acceptance of state authority undoubtedly assisted Hitler in the securing of totalitarian control over the German people.” Kuehnelt-Leddihn wrote the Reformers were not liberals in the decadent sense or in the true sense. He argued classical liberalism, “in the Reformation faiths makes itself felt only in the Eighteenth century as a result of the impact of the Enlightenment and of rationalism, both late descendants of the Renaissance and therefore alien in themselves to the spirit of the Reformation”.

I suspect much confusion arises regarding the ideas of early Protestantism because their movement was called the “Reformation.” People tend to think of a reformation as progressive or moving forward. In fact neither Luther nor Calvin wanted such a thing. They were reforming the Christian church in a backward direction. In particular, they were revolting against the role of reason brought to the Church by Aquinas. The Protestant reformers were trying to snuff out the light of reason completely. They were not the forerunners of the Age of the Enlightenment, but it’s most deadly foes. Frederick Beisner, Professor of Philosophy at Indiana University, explains how the Reformationists were in vehement opposition to the Age of Enlightenment:

The eminent Swiss historian Herbert Lüthy (, , January 1964) wrote “Martin Luther’s revolt against the worldliness of Renaissance Rome was a revolt of a medeival spirit against the modern world, not the obverse.” In fact, he used much stronger language to describe the Reformation: “The Reformation, insofar as it was concerned with the affairs of world, was and very explicitly a protest against the worship of the Golden Calf. To use modern jargon, it was the outbreak of an anticapitalist movement that had long been coming to a head at all levels of society.”



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James Peron

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, was the founding editor of Esteem a LGBT publication in South Africa under apartheid.